The Powder Mage Trilogy

By Brian McClellan

McClellan’s first book, Promise of Blood, begins in the middle of a coup, and as such, it takes a little while for the reader to sort out exactly what is going on (and who their sympathies should lie with). Stick with it. Soon it becomes clear that the reader’s perspective will follow Field Marshall Tamas (who initiated the coup), his son Taniel Two-shot, and a handful of other rebels-turned-rulers. Both Field Marshal Tamas and Taniel are what are known as “powder mages,” who are able to ingest and manipulate gun powder in order to trigger powerful abilities. But while magic (powder mage and otherwise) plays a vital role in the story, there is a fair bit of the mystery and war genres mixed in among the typical fantasy tropes.

The first book itself is certainly not perfect: the character development isn’t very strong, and there are a fair number of instances where putatively smart individuals make bone-headed decisions just to move the plot forward. But as a freshman attempt, this is solid work, and McClellan strums many of the notes I’m listening for. His magic system is novel, and conflicts between the powder mages and the more conventionally talented mages feel appropriately high-stakes. I’m also a sucker for a good story about military strategy, which comes to play frequently in the series.

By the end of book one, things really start to heat up, and if your taste is anything like mine, you’ll find yourself quickly reaching for books two and three, The Crimson Campaign, and The Autumn Republic. McClellan improves as he goes, and skillfully weaves multiple story lines together in ways that leave the reader craving more. I will admit, however, that like many authors of epic fantasy, McClellan struggles to resolve the trilogy, and as many before him, ends up relying on the trope of “main character somehow becomes super powerful just in time to defeat evil.” With that said, after completing the trilogy, was I immediately inclined to reach for McClellan’s next work, (Sins of Empire)? Yes, yes I was.

This is classic fantasy meat and potatoes. Approach with confidence if you enjoy battles, sleuthing and cliff-hangers.

Rating: 3 – Highly Recommended

If you like this, you may enjoy: The Thousand Names, The Last Kingdom.


The Player of Games

By Iain M. Banks

Fans of Iain M. Banks (or anyone with access to Google, I suppose), will be quick to note that The Player of Games is actually the second novel in the Culture Series, and so it may seem strange that I’m not first reviewing the series’ initial novel, Consider Phlebas. The answer to this conundrum is rather simple: I’d read that it’s best to start the series with book two! (Incidentally, I’ve heard, and agree, with the same recommendation for those tackling the Malazan Book of the Fallen series). Thus, The Player of Games is both my first and only experience with Banks’ work.

The book follows Jernau Gurgeh, a famous “game player” among the extremely advanced society known as The Culture (imagine someone who can compete competitively in chess, monopoly, and Pictionary- basically whatever game he puts his mind to). Beset by a vague sense of ennui, and manipulated by outside forces, Gurgeh is compelled to leave his comfortable surroundings and venture to the more primitive world of the empire of Azad, where he eventually competes in the highly complex game which dominates their culture.

While reading The Player of Games, my thoughts occasionally drifted back to Piers Anthony’s Split Infinity series, which I have fond memories of, despite not having read for a decade or two. The appeal of both works centers on our fascination with games and competition, and by the end of The Player of Games, I was very much invested in Gurgeh’s quest to defeat the best that the Azad had to offer. While Anthony’s work tends towards the more juvenile (and by that I mean no disrespect- as a juvenile, I enjoyed his books very much!), Banks’ work is definitely for adults. I wouldn’t consider this especially “hard” sci-fi, insofar as Banks doesn’t spend considerable time focused on technology or science, but this isn’t really a beach read either.

Overall, I enjoyed the book quite a bit, and look forward to reading more of Banks’ work. If you enjoy sci-fi generally, I have a hard time believing that you wouldn’t enjoy this. Read with confidence!

Rating: 3- Highly Recommended.

If you like this, you may enjoy: A Fire Upon the Deep, Old Man’s War

The Long Price Quartet

By Daniel Abraham

Loyal blog readers (“there are literally dozens of us!”) will know that I’ve given high praise to The Expanse series, which is co-authored by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. Among Abraham’s other works, I’ve also had a chance to read The Long Price Quartet, as well as his Dagger and Coin series (review TBD).

The first entry of the Long Price Quartet, A Shadow in Summer, was published in 2006, and the series had concluded by 2009, two years before Leviathan Wakes and The Dragon’s Path (the initial volumes of The Expanse and The Dagger and Coin) saw the light of day. The story centers on the nation of Khaeim, which is a confederation of mostly independent cities which rely on a caste known as the “poets” to ensure their safety and economic strength. The relationship between the poets and their Andat (elemental creatures which can be bound by a sufficiently powerful will) is the heart of the story’s appeal, and there is real innovation in how Abraham sets up the story.

For better or for worse, this is a story about the relationships between the characters. While there is some magic, some war, and a fair bit of conflict, this is a story about people (and Andat, I guess) more than it is about a system of magic, or about battles, etc. If you tend to prefer books that move at a rapid clip, and which don’t frequently get bogged down in the details of personal decision-making (e.g. “do I do what’s easy, or what’s right? Let me mull this over for a few weeks…”), this won’t be your cup of tea.

In general, I’ve found this series to be my least favorite of Abraham’s work, and by book four, The Price of Spring, my attention was definitely waning. People continued making poor decisions, and at times it felt like that was all that kept the plot progressing. Personally, I was much more taken with Abraham’s subsequent Dagger and Coin series, which retains some of his more languid pace, while injecting some additional conflict and scale to the story. So my advice to you is, try The Dagger and Coin first. If you love it, give his earlier stuff a read! If not, it may not be for you.

Rating: 2- Recommend with Reservations

If you like this, you may enjoy: Assassin’s Apprentice.

The Shadow of What Was Lost (Licanius Trilogy, Book One)

By James Islington

In my recent review of The Legends of Muirwood, I wrote that if one was looking for a classic and satisfying “orphan comes of age and develops magical powers” story, a better choice would be James Islington’s recent novel, The Shadow of What was Lost (which acts as the first entry in his Licanius Trilogy).

The blurb that convinced me to give this one a try indicated that the book compared favorable to The Wheel of Time, so readers of my WOT review will understand why I jumped at giving the book a try. Indeed, TSWWL owes a great debt to WOT- both stories start with a relatively obscure protagonist, surrounded by his friends and mentors. Shortly, their peaceful environments are disrupted, forcing them to flee in the company of old friends, and new, possibly untrustworthy acquaintances. Islington takes, what seems to me to be great pleasure in riffing on some of the tropes of WOT, including the novel’s prologue, which mirrors Robert Jordan’s classic teaser of Lews Therin Telamon, wandering among the wreckage of his home and family, not knowing that he himself was responsible for their destruction.

Things I liked:

  • Cool magic system, and one which seems like it will lend itself to further “reveals” over time
  • It’s clear Islington is drawing from authors I love, like Jordan, Sanderson and Rothfuss
  • The story is morally complex, and even by the end of the book, it’s not entirely clear to us who “the good guys” are, and what the “bad guys” motivation is.
  • Islington’s writing is really solid, especially for a debut novel

By the end of the book, I was wholly committed, and the sequels have risen to the top of my list of forthcoming books. Islington has created a prototypical epic fantasy world, and while he may not be breaking new ground, he’s shown that he can world-build with the best of them. I eagerly await the rest of the trilogy, as well as whatever he decides to do next!

Rating: 4- Mandatory Reading

If you liked this, you may enjoy: The Wheel of Time, The Way of Kings

Legends of Muirwood

By Jeff Wheeler

Jeff Wheeler’s trilogy centers on the young character of Lia, in the classic role of “young servant with mysterious parentage who will grow up to be someone important.” Book one, The Wretched of Muirwood, focuses on her emergence from obscurity, and the sequels, The Blight of Muirwood and The Scourge of Muirwood, chronicle her quest to master magical powers, etc.

In a way, these books were part of the inspiration for this blog, but unfortunately not in the manner that the author would presumably hope. Instead, it’s because at a certain point in book three, I remember looking up and thinking, “why am I still reading this?”

In fantasy more than other genres, I’d argue, there’s a certain occupational hazard in assuming that any given story will continue to mature and evolve. Something like 90% of the fantasy books I pick up (I’m only half-kidding) rely on the trope of “orphan who is meant for greater things,” so I’m typically okay with cutting the author some slack while the story finds its footing and develops into something more interesting. Sometimes, however, that just doesn’t happen, and I’d argue that it doesn’t really happen here.

So if you’re in the mood for a classic “coming of age fantasy” story, I’d argue there are much better options out there (a recent example of which is The Shadow of What Was Lost, review TBD).

Rating: 1 – Skip it.


Chronicles of the Black Company

By Glen Cook

Ok, first, an admission: I’m not quite finished with Cook’s Chronicles of the Black Company, so I reserve the right to edit this review if the final chapters turn out to be absolute dreck. (Editor’s note: they didn’t.)

With that said, I’m pretty confident that won’t happen, because I’ve LOVED these books so far. Cook’s work first came onto my radar a few years ago, as I was looking for some “dark and gritty” fantasy. I ended up opting for Joe Abercrombie’s series The First Law instead. It did indeed satisfy my dark urge, but I ultimately found Abercrombie’s work a little dispiriting- I love a good anti-hero, but when entire books are made up of them, it can become a bit of a slog (full review of The First Law, forthcoming).

Despite writing in the same sub-genre, Cook’s work never left me with quite the same feeling. Sure, the members of the Black Company aren’t angels, but they demonstrate camaraderie towards each other, and when they do commit foul acts, it’s typically under duress. I think the story is well-served by being grounded in the generally morally acceptable character of Croaker, the Black Company’s physician and our protagonist. It also benefits from Cook’s magnificent vision of “The Lady” and her “Ten Who Were Taken,” whose dastardly desires keep the plot progressing in satisfying fashion.

In terms of writing, Cook’s style tends towards the short and choppy. He’s not prone to over-description, and tends to get straight to the dialogue/action, which I appreciate (as detailed in the “About Me” section, I’ll take plot over prose any time). With that said, if you’re looking for fantasy with a more “literary” feel, there are plenty of more appropriate options out there (for instance, The Name of the Wind, or The Dragonbone Chair).

However, if you’re into grittier, war-based fantasy, then I can’t recommend these books highly enough. They may not be for everyone, but Croaker and his merry band will stick in my memory for a long time to come.

Rating: 3- Highly Recommended

If you like this, you may enjoy: The First Law, The Broken Empire


By Neal Stephenson

For whatever reason, Stephenson’s Snowcrash has found itself firmly tucked away against Gibson’s Neuromancer in my memory, to the point that while writing these reviews, I needed to go back and look at each to determine where one ended and the other began.

Snowcrash is perhaps less revolutionary and prophetic than Neuromancer, partially by virtue of being written several years after (still, 1992!). With that said, I freely admit that if I needed to re-read one or the other, I would choose Snowcrash without a second thought. Both books combine hacking intrigue with larger questions about artificial intelligence, the nature of reality, and the degree to which drugs can affect our perception, but for my money, Snowcrash is just a more fun ride. From the opening sequence, in which we find our hero protagonist, Hiro Protagonist (seriously) speeding madly in order to deliver a pizza on time, this book offers a lot to like.

While Snowcrash might not have been quite the act of imagination that Neuromancer was (at least for its time), there’s an argument to be made that Stephenson’s vision of the internet as a mix of “private walled gardens” set opposite what is essentially the wild wild west, is only becoming more accurate by the year. (Indeed, if net neutrality ends up going the way of the dinosaurs, those walled gardens likely to proliferate quickly.)

Towards the end of the book, things really start going off the rails, and while the plot may not always been easily digestible, there’s a lot of enjoyment (and some humor) to be had here. In particular, the shadowy and dangerous figure of Raven stands tall in my memory, cutting his way across the waves on his kayak. If you like sci-fi, and have any appetite at all for slightly more complex material, I highly recommend you give this one a try (there’s a fair amount of reference to ancient Sumerian text, but don’t worry, no Sumerian is required to enjoy the book!).

Rating: 3- Highly Recommended

If you like this, you may enjoy: Neuromancer, Ready Player One


By William Gibson

Neuromancer is one of those books that modern sci-fi readers may dismiss as being “old news,” but they do so at their own peril. First published in 1984, Gibson’s novel was incredibly prescient; his description of “cyberspace” presaged much of what the world wide web would become, years ahead of its time.

Neuromancer’s influence can be seen virtually anywhere you look in the modern sci-fi scene. It popularized what would become known as the “cyberpunk” genre, and more modern works like The Matrix are direct descendants of the ideas Gibson explores. In fact, there’s a certain sense in which the very character of the modern day internet is indebted to Gibson’s vision (for more on this, check out Jack Womack’s afterword to the 2000 re-printing of the novel)!

The plot follows beleaguered hacker Henry Dorsett Case, who finds himself in difficult straits in Chiba City, Japan. In return for bailing Case out, a mysterious benefactor sets him on the path to find a piece of artificial(?) intelligence, and things get pretty crazy, pretty fast. Suffice to say, there are ninjas, samurai, a whole heap of drugs, and sojourns into cyberspace.

As a novel itself, Neuromancer is a little choppier than I’d like. It’s a challenging read at times, and wading through the characters’ slang can get tiring. Beach reading, this isn’t.

With that said, this is a cornerstone of the sci-fi genre, and I continue to be amazed that anyone could have written this book before the existence of the web. Like the subject of my next review (Snowcrash), this isn’t for everyone, but it’s certainly a worthwhile read for any one who enjoys sci-fi generally.

Rating: 2- Recommend with Reservations

If you like this, you may enjoy: Snowcrash


The Red Rising Series

By Pierce Brown

I took a trip to Iceland last fall, and in the process found myself frantically downloading books to my Kindle before I left. In the process, I ended up with Red Rising, which I hadn’t heard anything about previously.

Full disclosure: this isn’t a well-written book. I think the average sentence length is probably like 8 words, and let me tell you, this ain’t Hemingway.

“But Sam,” you say, “in your ‘About Me section,’ you say that you’re not interested in trashing authors’ work, right? Why so harsh?”

Also full disclosure: I basically inhaled this book, and its sequels Golden Son and Morning Star. Is it fine literature? Nope. Is it highly derivative of the Hunger Games? Yep. Did I read all three books within like 48 hours? You betcha.

Here’s the basic plot: in a futuristic dystopian society, a member of the downtrodden “Red” class manages to infiltrate the upper tier “Gold” class, and embarks on Hunger Games-esque adventures. And while I panned the writing of the first book, to be fair, the author is young, and improves over books 2 and 3. Throughout, Brown commands a strong control of the plot, and keeps the cliffhangers coming. If you enjoyed the Hunger Games (or even Harry Potter, for that matter), you’ll probably find something to like here. At the very least, it’s a good way to spend a lazy afternoon.

Warning: though this is something near young adult literature, there is a fair bit of violence and gore (a la The Hunger Games).

1/22/18 Editor’s Note: this book was initially given a rating of “2 – Guilty Pleasure.” As part of the blog redesign, all ratings of “Guilty Pleasure” have since been revised to “Recommended with Reservations.”

Rating: 2 – Recommended with Reservations

If you like this, you may enjoy: The Hunger Games, Harry Potter

H.P. Lovecraft, The Complete Fiction

By H.P. Lovecraft

I’m a certified “big book” lover, and so when I wander through bookstores, my eye often settles on the bulkiest books around (insert Sir Mix-A-Lot reference here). On just such an outing a few years ago, I found myself drawn to a suitably large tome, which revealed itself to be The Complete Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft.

I knew Lovecraft’s name, and that it was synonymous with weirdness, but that was about the extent of my familiarity with the author. A few short hours later, I had remedied that situation, by poring over his weird and wonderful tales of woe. Lovecraft is difficult to describe- he’s very much situated in a particular place and time (or at least that’s how it feels to read his work 100 years later), and yet he’s writing about fantastic and horrific concepts that seem to transcend time. His writing is compelling, and his imagination is truly something to behold.

The enduring nature of the words, images, and, well, creatures that Lovecraft created is a testament to his skill. I mean, how many other authors dead before 1937 are the inspiration for modern board games? (I HIGHLY recommend the game, btw.) If you’re a reluctant reader of the horror genre (and I count myself firmly in that camp), I’d still suggest giving Lovecraft a try, if only because of his over-sized influence on the modern fantasy/horror landscape.

Now, one very significant caveat: Lovecraft, by any modern definition, is well… pretty racist. Even if you’re inclined to grant the guy a certain amount of slack for having lived in a different era, your eyebrows are likely to rise on occasion due to his descriptions of “mulatto’s,” etc. My personal approach is that reading an author’s work doesn’t necessarily mean accepting their premises, but I can certainly understand if some people would just prefer to skip H.P. entirely.

Rating: 2- Recommend with Reservations

If you like this, you may enjoy: Edgar Allen Poe, George R. R. Martin’s Short Fiction